Richardson: Firefighters’ deaths on hands of elected leaders - East Valley Tribune: Columnists

Richardson: Firefighters’ deaths on hands of elected leaders

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Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at bill.richardson@cox.net.

Posted: Tuesday, July 9, 2013 4:51 pm | Updated: 8:16 am, Thu Jul 11, 2013.

News stories from over the weekend about the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hot Shot fire fighters in Yarnell paint an ugly picture of Arizona’s response to what was a small fire that grew and grew and killed so many.

A story titled “Slow Response, Predictable Path of Thunderstorms, Were Precursors to Yarnell Hill Firefighters’ Deaths” appeared online Saturday at investigativemedia.com. The story, written by former East Valley Tribune reporter John Dougherty, tells a frightening story of a poor response to the fire that cost 19 lives. Dougherty is an award-winning reporter with a history of exposing hard-hitting facts and government failures.

On Sunday, the Arizona Republic featured an editorial titled “19 Yarnell Hill Fire epitaphs: Never again.”

The editorial doesn’t mince words. “If there is an epitaph to be laid on 19 fresh graves, it should be this: Never again. Never should teams of firefighters jeopardize their lives to save property. Never should they face unnecessary risk. Never should they march into war against forest fires without up-to-date, detailed knowledge of wind and weather. Authorities have been careful not to point fingers. But be assured, that 19 men died is self-evident proof something went seriously wrong,” it reads. No doubt we’ll eventually know what happened thanks to Dougherty, the Republic and other media outlets.

But will we get the truth from the official investigation?

I’m not a big believer in the government telling the truth anymore, especially when there might be blood on the hands of government officials.

The state’s reported response to the fire doesn’t surprise me. It’s just the latest and largest example of what I see as the steady decline of good public safety policy, effective leadership and proper decision-making when it comes to statewide public safety.

Political loyalties and party paybacks have increasingly become the major qualifiers and deciding factors for the selection of leaders at critical state agencies.

Reported and documented corruption, mismanagement, inefficiency and a lack of effective and qualified leadership at statewide institutions, like the Arizona National Guard, Child Protective Services and Department of Public Safety – and now questions about the handling of the Yarnell fire – are frightening eye openers of how our state government has come to operate.

The legislature’s continued lack of proper oversight and failure to demand strict accountability from those who influence and carryout statewide public safety policy is where much of the blame belongs. For too long the legislature has been a rubber stamp for the political hacks, good old boys and those who’ll play political patty-cake with them and have been appointed by Arizona’s governors.

Arizona has become a dysfunctional mishmash of dozens of state agencies involved in public safety that fight for money and attention and are used to doing things their way instead of being led by a single professional and qualified leader who directs statewide public safety and insures the delivery of quality services.

Arizona was once looked upon as a pioneering leader in public safety by design thanks to governors selecting the best of the best to lead state agencies. Now public safety continues in a downward spiral as evidenced by a long string of failures ranging from the deaths of the firefighters, to a failing Guard, a steady stream of murdered children in state care and a state DPS that struggles to deliver minimal statewide protection and law enforcement services.

There’s a reason organized crime from Mexico loves being here and Arizona continues to experience catastrophic incidents and public safety failures that have an impact on the welfare of public safety workers, residents and our quality of life.

A wide array of Arizona’s elected officials has failed us for too long.

Overall, statewide public safety in Arizona is marginal at best and there’s no one to blame for it but our elected officials. They set policy, establish priorities, hire and fire, provide oversight and sign the checks.

Mediocrity and complacency have become acceptable when it comes to statewide public safety.

The deaths of 19 firefighters should be a wake up call for the elected officials who oversee our protection. The failures are theirs.

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